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How to disrupt a nonprofit board (and how not to stand in the way)

February 3, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
“We met on one of the top floors of a very luxurious center city office building,” said India Blunt, recounting her first board meeting with Urban Tree Connection (UTC). “The work of the board seemed very disconnected from the work of the organization.”

Disruption of the status quo of nonprofit board operations, sadly, involves making boards more representative of the community they serve and the larger population. (“Sadly” in the sense that board diversity should be an assumption, not a disruption.)

Board diversity has been stagnant for the better part of the last three decades. Even an informal Generocity survey of nonprofits serving the autism community found a lack of neurodiversity in board membership.

Reframing representation and purpose

When Blunt joined the UTC  board, the nonprofit served (and still does today) the Haddington neighborhood in West Philly.

The geographic disconnect between meeting locations and the physical location of the nonprofit’s work paralleled the misunderstanding of UTC’s mission. “We weren’t doing charity work; we were doing food and land justice work,” said Blunt, who is the current board chair.

The first shift the board made was to move meetings to West Philly, which aided the board’s diversity challenges.

Next, UTC changed how it approached board recruitment.

“When I first came onto the board it was dominated by middle-class white women,” Blunt said. “In recruitment, we targeted Black folks, people of color, and working-class people. Our board is now only working-class Black folks and POC.”

The board now reflects the population UTC serves: Haddington was 89% Black in 2017 according to U.S. Census estimates.

Blunt noted that making the board more representative of the community it serves did not isolate all the previous board members. Some still support the work, donate, or serve on committees. Even board members who stepped back helped the organization, by giving UTC the space to refocus its work, Blunt added.

From our Partners

Boards often rely on wealthy members for fundraising. UTC’s board spread out that responsibility. “In terms of fundraising, we collectivize the work so one board member’s individual access to wealth, or those with wealth, isn’t the focus,” Blunt said.

The third way the board shifted was in recognizing the political context of its mission.

UTC isn’t simply an urban gardening nonprofit. “We have repurposed [formerly vacant land] for communal growing and gathering, sustainable food production and affordable food distribution, and multi-generational community health and wellness education,” Blunt said. “We aim to cultivate community leadership, improve community health, and develop a local sustainable equitable food system.”

“We’re talking about Black folks reclaiming land, but why? Because Black folks have been historically dispossessed of land,” Blunt said. “We’re talking about reconnecting to our ancestral growing practices, why? Because slavery and colonization have disrupted our relationship to the land. We’re talking about building land-based strategies in West Philadelphia, why? Because gentrification is a real threat.”

Blunt and the board introduced regular political education components to each board meeting. To even be considered for the board, candidates have to complete readings on food and land justice as well as agroecology.

Clearly, this is the sign of a healthy board; a struggling board would use monthly meetings to focus solely on funding and operations.

The largest act of disruption a board can undertake is to constantly acknowledge the larger context its work takes place in and discuss it.

Representing multiple generations

According to a study by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, 83% of board members are 40 or older, and board members on boards with a higher proportion of members under 39 years of age were more likely, overall, to ask other people for donations.

One organization already covered by Generocity pushing boundaries in this area is the Spruce Foundation, which is comprised entirely of millennials. The Lilly Family study found most boards don’t represent each generation of the adult population.

One of the advancements in this area has been the formation of young professionals or young friends board to supplement the work done by a board of directors. Organizations such as Variety Camps and Ryan’s Case for Smiles have undertaken this approach.

Ryan’s Case for Smiles launched its Young Professional Board in 2018.

“Their work has involved developing case studies on opportunities to engage millennials with our organization, and then launching a number of pilot fundraising initiatives this year,” said Ashley Feuer-Edwards, a member of the board of directors. Young professional board members are non-voting members, but can transition onto the primary board, as one member already has.

Melissa Pohlig, vice president of Ryan’s Case for Smiles, explained the importance of a mentor/mentee relationship that was an integral part of this process. “Each [young professional] member has been paired with a member of the board of directors … so that we can continue to identify other [young professional board] members who should be promoted to the board,” she said.

The young professional board members have monthly calls and frequent communication with Pohlig. In addition to helping a nonprofit expand its reach, a young professionals board provides professional development for young members and is a recruitment tool for the board of directors.

Roadmap to disruption

“Disruptors and Instigators” as Generocity’s January 2020 theme clearly refers to the Silicon Valley definition of “disruption” — as a positive force for change that breaks the status quo. In that conversation, it’s worth looking at how nonprofits disrupt board operations — in the wrong way.

In addition to actively working to make a board representative of the community it serves, the next simplest way to disrupt a board is develop opportunities and nurture the growth of volunteers who already express a strong desire to help the nonprofit’s mission.

One volunteer in the Philadelphia area who has been underutilized by a nonprofit organization spoke with Generocity anonymously about just this. This volunteer is a triple threat: they have solicited major donations, recruited volunteers, and advised on best practices, yet the nonprofit involved does not actively seek out the volunteer’s input, or even extend an invitation to annual fundraising events.

In addition, the board hasn’t given the volunteer a framework within which to truly develop and contribute. “I had a lot of fundraising ideas and some of them were totally outlandish,” the volunteer said. “It would have been helpful if someone could have taken the ball and at least laid out an outline of how to go about doing something ….”

Contrast that with Ryan’s Case for Smiles, which has its young professional board conduct pilot fundraising initiatives.

When nonprofit organizations leave volunteers who have exhibited a strong desire to contribute waiting in the wings, the nonprofit risks not bringing their next India Blunt onto the board — someone who will help refocus on the mission and challenge current assumptions about board operations.

Bring those people in and listen; the board will be better for it in the long run. Because, sometimes, as in this case, a nonprofit organization can get in the way of their own positive disruption.

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